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Disaster

Florida deaths rise to 47 amid struggle to recover from Ian

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By Rebecca Santana And Meg Kinnard in Fort Myers

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Rescuers evacuated stunned survivors on a large barrier island cut off by Hurricane Ian and Florida’s death toll climbed sharply, as hundreds of thousands of people were still sweltering without power days after the monster storm rampaged from the state’s southwestern coast up to the Carolinas.

Florida, with nearly four dozen reported dead, was hit hardest by the Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest to make landfall in the United States. Flooded roadways and washed-out bridges to barrier islands left many people isolated, amid limited cellphone service and a lack of basic amenities such as water, electricity and the internet.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Saturday that multibillionaire businessman Elon Musk was providing some 120 Starlink satellites to “help bridge some of the communication issues.” Starlink, a satellite-based internet system created by Musk’s SpaceX, will provide high-speed connectivity.

Florida utilities were working to restore power. As of Sunday morning, more than 700,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity, down from a peak of 2.67 million.

At least 54 people were confirmed dead: 47 in Florida, four in North Carolina and three in Cuba. The weakened storm had drifted north on Sunday and was expected to dump rain on parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, according to the National Hurricane Center, which has warned of the potential for flash flooding.

More than 1,000 people were rescued from flooded areas along Florida’s southwestern coast alone, Daniel Hokanson, a four-star general and head of the National Guard, told The Associated Press while airborne to Florida.

In Washington, the White House announced that President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden would travel to Florida on Wednesday. But a brief statement did not release any details of the planned visit.

The bridge to Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, was destroyed by the storm, leaving it accessible only by boat or air. The volunteer group Medic Corps, which responds to natural disasters worldwide with pilots, paramedics and doctors, went door-to-door asking residents if they wanted to be evacuated.

Some flew out by helicopter, and people described the horror of being trapped in their homes as water kept rising.

“The water just kept pounding the house and we watched, boats, houses — we watched everything just go flying by,” Joe Conforti said, fighting back tears. He said if it wasn’t for his wife, who suggested they get up on a table to avoid the rising water, he wouldn’t have made it: “I started to lose sensibility, because when the water’s at your door and it’s splashing on the door and you’re seeing how fast it’s moving, there’s no way you’re going to survive that.”

River flooding posed a major challenge at times to rescue and supply delivery efforts. The Myakka River washed over a stretch of Interstate 75, forcing a traffic-snarling highway closure for a while before officials said later Saturday that it could be reopened.

While swollen rivers have crested or are near cresting, the levels aren’t expected to drop significantly for days, National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming said.

Elsewhere, South Carolina’s Pawleys Island, a beach community roughly 75 miles (115 kilometers) up the coast from Charleston, was also hit hard. Power remained knocked out to at least half the island Saturday.

Eddie Wilder, who has been coming to Pawleys Island for more than six decades, said it was “insane” to see waves as high as 25 feet (7.6 meters) wash away a landmark pier near his home.

“We watched it hit the pier and saw the pier disappear,” he said. “We watched it crumble and and watched it float by with an American flag.”

Wilder’s house, located 30 feet (9 meters) above the shoreline, stayed dry inside.

In North Carolina, the storm downed trees and power lines. Two of the four deaths in the state were from storm-related vehicle crashes, and the others involved a man who drowned when his truck plunged into a swamp and another killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator in a garage.

At Port Sanibel Marina in Fort Myers, Florida, the storm surge pushed several boats and a dock onshore. Charter captain Ryan Kane said his vessel was so badly damaged that he was unable to use it to help rescue people, and now it will be a long time before he can take clients fishing again.

“There’s a hole in the hull. It took water in the motors. It took water in everything,” he said, adding: “You know, boats are supposed to be in the water, not in parking lots.”

___

Kinnard reported from Pawleys Island, South Carolina; Associated Press contributors include Freida Frisaro in Miami; Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Gerald Herbert in Pine Island, Florida; Mike Pesoli in Lehigh Acres, Florida; Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia; and Amy Forliti from Minneapolis.

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Alberta

‘Cautiously optimistic’: Lawyer for trucker in Broncos crash waiting on Federal Court

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By Bill Graveland in Calgary

A lawyer for a former truck driver who caused the deadly Humboldt Broncos bus crash says he’s cautiously optimistic that he will get the chance to argue against his client’s possible deportation before Federal Court.

In 2019, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu was sentenced to eight years after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death and bodily harm in the Saskatchewan crash that killed 16 people and injured 13 others.

The Canada Border Services Agency recommended in March that Sidhu be handed over to the Immigration and Refugee Board to decide whether he should be deported to India.

Michael Greene, Sidhu’s lawyer, said if the Federal Court decides not to hear the case, the deportation process would continue.

He said all written arguments with the Federal Court were filed in July, adding that no news can be good news when waiting for the court to make its decision.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but I know enough not to get cocky about something like that,” Greene said. “Usually when it takes time, it means you’ve got an arguable case.”

It is also a high-profile case, so a judge might want to be extra careful, he said.

Court was told that the rookie Calgary trucker, a newly married permanent resident, went through a stop sign at a rural intersection and drove into the path of the Humboldt Broncos bus carrying players and staff to a junior hockey league playoff game.

The Parole Board of Canada granted Sidhu day parole in July for six months. He can get full parole after that if he follows conditions, including not contacting the families of the victims.

“Day parole means he is at home. He’s with his wife and I can’t tell you how happy that makes them,” Greene said. “They’re trying to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

Greene said even if he is granted permission to appeal before the court and is successful, the matter would be sent back to Canada Border Services Agency for another review. He said the original officer put all the weight of his decision on the gravity of the harm caused.

“You can’t get your hopes up too high,” Greene said.

“Sometimes the judge will make comments in their decision that will give some guidance to the (CBSA) officers.”

An online fundraising page set up to raise money to help keep Sidhu in Canada has reached more than $42,000.

A message from Sidhu’s wife, Tanvir Mann, a Canadian citizen, said her husband made a “tragic mistake.”

“When confronted by the unimaginable magnitude of the consequences of his mistake, he did everything he could to make things better,” Mann writes.

“I pray that there are people out there who don’t believe that Jaskirat should be deported and are willing to contribute to my fight to be able to live out our lives in Canada.”

The Canada Border Services Agency has previously declined to comment on Sidhu’s case, but said there are multiple steps built into the process to ensure procedural fairness.

Greene said he understands that several of the victims’ families are still angry.

“It’s completely understandable. It is,” he said. “Everybody deals with grief and loss in their own way.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

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Disaster

S. Korea in shock, grief as 151 die in Halloween crowd surge

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Concerned relatives raced to hospitals in search of their loved ones Sunday as South Korea mourned the deaths of at least 151 people, mostly in their teens and 20s, who got trapped and crushed after a huge Halloween party crowd surged into a narrow alley in a nightlife district in Seoul.

Tens of thousands of people were believed to have gathered in Itaewon for festivities on Saturday night. Witnesses say the streets were so densely clogged with people and slow-moving vehicles that it was practically impossible for emergency workers and ambulances to reach the alley near Hamilton Hotel, as the situation quickly developed into one of the country’s worst disasters in years.

There were concerns the death toll could grow as 24 people among the 104 being treated for injuries are in critical condition, according to Seoul City’s disaster headquarters.

The city government said more than 2,600 people have called or visited a city office in nearby Hannam-dong as of Saturday afternoon, reporting their relatives as out of contact and asking officials to confirm whether they were among those injured or dead after the crush.

The dead included 19 foreigners, said Choi Seong-beom, chief of Seoul’s Yongsan fire department. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry did not confirm the nationalities of those victims, but it said that they alerted their countries’ embassies in Seoul. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said at least three Chinese nationals were killed.

The bodies of the dead were being kept at 42 hospitals in the capital, Seoul, and nearby Gyeonggi Province, according to Seoul City, which said it will instruct crematories to burn more bodies per day as part of plans to support funeral proceedings.

Around 100 businesses in the Hamilton Hotel area have agreed to shut down their shops through Monday to reduce the number of partygoers who would come to the streets through Halloween Day.

An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in Itaewon for the country’s biggest outdoor Halloween festivities since the pandemic began and strict rules on gatherings were enforced. The South Korean government eased COVID-19 restrictions in recent months and this was the first big chance to get out and party for many young people.

While Halloween isn’t a traditional holiday in South Korea, where children rarely go trick-or-treating, it’s still a major attraction for young adults, and costume parties at bars and clubs have become hugely popular in recent years.

Itaewon, near where the former headquarters of U.S. military forces in South Korea operated before moving out of the capital in 2018, is an expat-friendly district known for its trendy bars, clubs and restaurants and it’s the city’s marquee Halloween destination.

Officials initially said 150 people were injured as of Sunday morning before later lowering their tally. National Fire Agency officials didn’t immediately explain why the tally was reduced but said emergency workers would have had a more accurate idea of the casualties as rescue operations proceeded and that some of the injured would have been converted to deaths. It was also possible that some of those who were lightly injured had returned home overnight and were no longer counted.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a national mourning period on Sunday and ordered flags at government buildings and public offices to fly at half-staff. During a televised speech, Yoon said supporting the families of the victims, including their funeral preparations, and the treatment of the injured would be a top priority for his government.

He also called for officials to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and review the safety of other large cultural and entertainment events, including regional festivals, to ensure they proceed safely.

“This is really devastating. The tragedy and disaster that need not have happened took place in the heart of Seoul amid Halloween (celebrations),” Yoon said during the speech. “I feel heavy hearted and cannot contain my sadness as a president responsible for the people’s lives and safety.”

After the speech, Yoon visited the Itaewon alley where the disaster occurred. Local TV footage showed Yoon inspecting the alley filled with trash and being briefed by emergency officials.

It was not immediately clear what led the crowd to surge into the narrow downhill alley near the Hamilton Hotel, a major party spot in Seoul. One survivor said many people fell and toppled one another “like dominos” after they were pushed by others. The survivor, surnamed Kim, said they were trapped for about an hour and a half before being rescued, as some people shouted “Help me!” and others were short of breath, according to the Seoul-based Hankyoreh newspaper.

Another survivor, Lee Chang-kyu, said he saw about five or six men push others before one or two began falling, according to the newspaper.

In an interview with news channel YTN, Hwang Min-hyeok, a visitor to Itaewon, said it was shocking to see rows of bodies near the hotel. He said emergency workers were initially overwhelmed, leaving pedestrians struggling to administer CPR to the injured lying on the streets. People wailed beside the bodies of their friends, he said.

Another survivor in his 20s said he avoided being trampled by managing to get into a bar whose door was open in the alley, Yonhap news agency reported. A woman in her 20s surnamed Park told Yonhap that she and others were standing along the side of the alley while others caught in the middle of the alley had no escape.

Choi, the fire department chief, said that bodies were being sent to hospitals or a gym, where bereaved family members could identify them. He said most of the dead and injured are in their 20s.

“Horrific news from Seoul tonight,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted. “All our thoughts are with those currently responding and all South Koreans at this very distressing time.”

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, tweeted that reports of the disaster were “heartbreaking” and said Washington “stands ready to provide the Republic of Korea with any support it needs.”

The last South Korean disaster this deadly also hit young people the hardest. In April 2014, 304 people, mostly high school students, died in a ferry sinking. The sinking exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. It was partially blamed on excessive and poorly fastened cargo and a crew poorly trained for emergency situations. Saturday’s deaths will likely draw public scrutiny of what government officials have done to improve public safety standards since the ferry disaster.

It was also Asia’s second major crushing disaster in a month. On Oct. 1, police in Indonesia fired tear gas at a soccer match, causing a crush that killed 132 people as spectators attempted to flee.

More than 1,700 response personnel from across the country were deployed to the streets to help the wounded, including about 520 firefighters, 1,100 police officers and 70 government workers. The National Fire Agency separately said in a statement that officials were still trying to determine the exact number of emergency patients.

This was the deadliest crushing disaster in South Korean history. In 2005, 11 people were killed and around 60 others were injured at a pop concert in the southern city of Sangju.

In 1960, 31 people died after being crushed on the stairs of a train station as large crowds rushed to board a train during the Lunar New Year holidays.

Kim Tong-hyung And Hyung-jin Kim, The Associated Press

 

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